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Budget Cutters Take Aim at TRIO and GEAR UP

Published:  April 28, 2011

Has the federal government reduced its commitment to supporting programs that aim to prepare and motivate low-income students for college?

That’s a question that some champions of the government’s main college outreach and early intervention programs are asking now that the dust has settled on the final spending bill for the remainder of the 2011 fiscal year. With so much attention on Pell Grant funding and the programs that were eliminated, little notice has been paid to the fact that the Obama administration and Congress agreed to make significant reductions to the budgets of the federal TRIO and GEAR UP programs -- deeper cuts, in fact, than either program has sustained over the last decade.

The TRIO programs are the government’s oldest college readiness programs, with some of them dating back to the mid-1960s. In general, the seven programs that make up TRIO aim to provide low-income middle school and high school students with the guidance, support, and academic help they need to apply to, enroll in, and graduate from college, as well as pursue post-baccalaureate opportunities.

The aim of GEAR UP, which was created in 1998, is to provide counseling, mentoring, academic support, and college outreach services to entire grades of disadvantaged students during regular school hours, starting in middle school. The program is primarily made up of school-college partnerships that are required to serve whole classes of middle school students by seventh grade and to continue working with them through high school graduation.

Under the final fiscal year 2011 budget bill, the TRIO programs were cut by $25 million to $828.4 million, and spending on GEAR UP was reduced by $20 million to $303 million. In addition, both may see their budgets shrink by another million dollars or so as a result of an across-the-board budget cut that was included in the final spending bill.

TRIO supporters are up in arms that the Obama administration and Congress agreed to pare the program's budget back to the level it was at in the 2003 fiscal year. In an alert to its members, theCouncil for Opportunity in Education, which lobbies on behalf of the program, focused its anger on the White House. The budget deal “makes clear that TRIO is not among the core education priorities of the Obama administration,” the group wrote. “It is now up to us to change this stance.”

The council has long argued that TRIO is underfunded, noting that only about 5 to 7 percent of students eligible for the programs are able to take advantage of them. In its alert, the group wrote that the budget cuts “will cause 90,000 students to be kicked out of TRIO programs this year.”  The Department of Education has not confirmed these numbers, and, therefore, it is hard to know whether or not they are accurate.

GEAR UP supporters have been far less vocal about their disappointment with the cuts, which will bring its budget back to the level it was funded at from 2005 to 2009. Over the last two years, the program received small bumps up, reaching $323 million in 2010. But even with these increases, the total number of school-college partnerships supported by the program declined from 209 in 2005 to 169 in 2010. In addition, the program has only been able to finance seven new partnerships since 2009.

Still, it would probably be unfair to argue that the latest cuts to TRIO and GEAR UP are a sign that the government’s interest in supporting college outreach programs has waned. After all, it was only last year that Congress, as part of its student loan reform bill, chose to devote $750 million in mandatory funds over the next five years to the College Access Challenge Grant program. That program, which is being financed through savings the government derived from ending the Federal Family Education Loan program, provides matching grants to states to support efforts to prepare more low-income students to enroll and succeed in college.

This points to, however, one of the biggest problems with the federal government’s current college readiness efforts. The programs suffer from significant overlap and redundancies, wasting resources and undermining what should be a coordinated effort. The College Access Challenge Grants appear to be particularly problematic because they support such a wide variety of activities (including, but not limited to, promoting financial literacy; providing professional development for middle school and high guidance counselors; and offering student loan forgiveness to borrowers employed in high-need areas and professions) that it is unclear whether the program will be effective overall.

In reality, the Obama administration and Congress did not target TRIO and GEAR UP for public policy reasons. They were merely the victims of last minute budget dealing that was, in the area of higher education policy, focused almost entirely on finding the money to keep the $5,550 maximum Pell Grant in place. This shows the threat that the Pell Grant program’s continuing budget problems pose to the rest of the government’s higher education agenda. Until policymakers find ways to reduce Pell’s costs, no other federal higher education program that is financed through the annual appropriations process will be entirely safe.

Over the coming weeks and months, we at Ed Money Watch will take a closer look at the TRIO, GEAR UP, and College Access Challenge Grant programs. Stay tuned.

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